Policing the anti-war movement in Ireland


The following exploration of the policing of the anti-war demonstrations will be in two parts: the first will look at the change in policing through the eyes of a participant, a new activist, while the second will make a more thorough examination of the forces at work which lead to such a massive escalation in the policing of anti-war protest, particularly at Shannon, both on the side of the protesters and that of the gardaí.

Through a newcomer’s eyes
My first visit to Shannon saw a very significant act of civil disobedience, in a mass trespass onto the airfield.  This had followed on from a fairly standard, if boisterous, march from Shannon town centre to the airport, some speeches, and some indignation at the refusal of the gardaí to let anyone enter the airport terminal building, including a six-year-old boy who needed to use the toilet.  As we left the airport, the Catholic Workers had dyed the fountain near the entrance blood-red, to symbolise the lives that would be lost were the war to go ahead.  Then we continued on our way.  But further on, as we left the terminal area, and continued on the road alongside the perimeter fence and the runways, a section of the crowd had broken off and were pulling at the airport fence – and it was coming away.  As it came down, a few brave souls ventured onto the airfield, being followed, after a moment’s hesitation, by a much larger section of the crowd. 

The police response was disorganised, to say the least.  There were a small number of gardaí present, who were mostly positioned between the march and the fences, but they clearly weren’t expecting anything on the scale of what occurred, and would have been heavily outnumbered in any case.  It was the decision of the protesters not to venture onto the runways, out of concern for safety, and instead to sit down on the airfield – it wasn’t forced by the gardaí, who would not have been able to do so.  A few vocal people were arrested, ‘to make an example’, but quickly released after the protest later relocated (of its own accord) to Shannon Garda station.

A protest organised by the Midwest Alliance against Military Aggression (MAMA) in December passed relatively without incident, but with a noticeable increase in police visibility and low-level intimidation, such as following protesters who had been separated from the march as they were leaving the area.  This was a situation which the incredibly admirable and dedicated band of Planespotters were very familiar with, as shown in the documentary ‘Route Irish’, among other places.  While this is a significant issue, this article will only touch on it for reasons of space.

As the year turned into 2003, the campaign ramped up, as the preparations for war continued apace.  The Shannon Peace Camp was set up to oppose the war on a constant basis at the site of Ireland’s involvement.  The Camp would go on to gain huge publicity and act as a focal point for much of the resistance which would follow.  Taking and holding space directly opposite the airport was a very public declaration that the opposition to war was very committed and would challenge Irish involvement in it.

At the end of January and the beginning of February, two actions took place at Shannon which would hugely change the situation for both protesters and police.  On January 29th, Mary Kelly entered the airport at night and disabled a US military plane by hitting its nose cone with an axe, rendering it impossible to fly.  This action is estimated to have caused €500,000 worth of damage.  A few days later, on February 1st, the five ‘Pitstop Ploughshares’ also entered the airport and damaged the same plane, as well as digging up part of a runway.  On both occasions, the protesters stated that gardaí on duty securing the plane were asleep or absent.

The fact that a fifty-year-old nurse and then a group of five people involved in a religious poverty alleviation group were able to gain access to the airport and damage a plane caused a predictable backlash and reaction.  While Eoin Dubsky had disarmed a plane by painting a peace sign on the windscreen in September 2002, this level of damage was unprecedented.  ‘If these people could get in and do this kind of damage’, went the cry, ‘then what kind of damage could terrorists do?’  The government moved quickly against the protesters, with Taoiseach Bertie Ahern saying that we were ‘over-tolerant’ of protesters, who were ‘not one bit peaceful’.  In a much more significant move, the Irish army were drafted into Shannon airport to protect it, and this move formed the centrepiece of a co-ordinated offensive against the motives and credibility of the anti-war movement.   The message was clear: the Irish army were needed, because the protesters were dangerous.
Then on February 15th, came the largest anti-war demonstration Ireland, and the world, had ever seen.  Millions marched around the world, while over 100,000 participated in Dublin.  But while the anger was the same as that which was being expressed at Shannon, the treatment was very different.  The gardaí were very much in the background, while Bertie Ahern’s reaction (however disingenuous), was to welcome the protest and lament the fact that he could not attend.

The separation between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ protesters in the mind of the Irish establishment would be further strengthened in the weeks ahead.   The Grassroots Network Against War (GNAW), a loose group of left and libertarian people had been set up to provide a vehicle for more mass direct action against the war, after frustration with the reticence of the Irish Anti-War Movement (IAWM) organisation grew.  GNAW called for a mass act of peaceful civil disobedience at Shannon of March 1st, to pull down the fences and access the airfield (as had happened the previous October).   Despite the fact that the protest had explicitly been advertised as non-violent, there was a determined effort by the government and the media to portray it as otherwise. 

While anti-war groups had consistently been accused of ‘anti-Americanism’, these attacks multiplied as the movement grew.  When the mass civil disobedience was called, two of the last three remaining troop carrying airlines announced they were pulling out of Shannon (another having pulled out after the Pitstop Ploughshares action), citing security concerns.  A hysterical media campaign was initiated, with ever shriller denunciations of the ‘violent’ nature of the protest.  It even got to the point where there were suggestions that the army might shoot people.  This had the effect of scaring off some people, including the Labour Party and the Greens, but also the IAWM.

On the day of the protest, the march split into two sections, the GNAW direct action one and the IAWM one.  When the GNAW march got to the airport fence we were confronted by a line of riot police with shields and a number of dogs, along lots more riot police inside the fence, a fire engine (to be used as a water cannon if needed), and the aforementioned Irish army.  This was a much bigger operation than anything seen at Shannon before.  After some time of a line of protesters facing down the line of police, the protest line lurched to the side, taking the gardaí by surprise, and a few people managed to get ropes onto the fence and began to pull it down.  But the police managed to get in and rugby tackle people before this was very advanced.  Nevertheless, despite the rough equivalence of numbers, it is notable how close the fence came to coming down, and most protesters went away positive, and with thoughts of how to do it better next time.

However, the start of the war, and indeed the taking of Baghdad, happened very rapidly after this.  On Day X, the day the war started, there was a protest at the Dáil, and symbolic red paint was poured on a Fianna Fáil senator who came out to justify the war, and Ireland’s part in it.  There was also an attempted blockade.  The manner in which this was dealt with by the gardaí is eloquently explained by Éamonn Crudden:

“The way in which the protesters attempting a spontaneous blockade were dragged from the road in the aftermath of the vote [in the Dáil, to allow for US use of Shannon] showed the face of a state unwilling to allow a space for civil disobedience to open up.  No mass arrests, just brute force.”

There were a number of protests in Shannon in the months and years that followed, one in particular of which attempted to access the airport, but which was quite isolated, and didn’t manage to achieve its objective.  The visit of George Bush to the Mid-West of Ireland in 2004 also saw a large mobilisation against the war, as well as the drafting in of hundreds of gardaí, secret service, and a large number of Armoured Personnel Carriers (APCs).  While these events were significant, and both involved acts or attempts at civil disobedience, the systematic, regularly organised actions ended not long after the taking of Baghdad, for reasons which limitations of space stop us going into, but which are much debated.  Because of this, the following discussion will concentrate on the actions during the run-up to the war, the policing of these actions, and what we can learn from these.

Clearly, as the drive to war continued, protests escalated, and so did their policing.  There are a number of different strands which need to be examined in order for us to be able to fully understand the process of how a protest which called for peaceful civil disobedience (and which remained peaceful) ended up being met by two lines of riot police, water cannon, and the Irish army, ‘the bizarre spectacle of the Irish army being deployed to protect the US military from 300 non-violent activists’ (Cox).

The early demonstrations at Shannon described here could be characterised as having had a relatively low level of policing, with the gardaí on duty drawn largely from the region and lead by local officers.  This was not the case on March 1st.  The role of the media and of the political establishment will be looked at in this light.  And while the police certainly responded to the aforementioned change in protest action, the circumstances of this need to be examined.

One of the many fascinating cables to emerge from WikiLeaks in the last few weeks had to do with anti-war protest in Ireland.  The US ambassador to Ireland in 2007 expressed anger at the acquittal by jury of the Pitstop Ploughshares (referred to in the cables as the ‘Shannon 5’) but, in spite of this, the importance of not providing ‘campaign grist’ which could be used against the Irish government was emphasised, as they had ‘consistently... acted [my emphasis] to ensure continued US military transits at Shannon in the face of public criticism.’

Never was this truer than in the early months of 2003.  Early criticism by government Ministers concentrated on the supposed ‘anti-Americanism’ of peace protesters, and on the idea that there would be flight of US capital from Ireland were we to withdraw use of Shannon (Irish Times editorial).  In the wake of the disarmaments of the US warplane by Mary Kelly and then the Pitstop Ploughshares, this criticism grew to new heights.  The supposed threat of violence was emphasised and there were even suggestions that the Irish army might shoot people as mentioned earlier.  The run up to the protest on March 1st, the media fulfilled the role of ‘PR auxiliaries’ (Cox) for the police, broadcasting a message of violence and generally scaremongering.  Politicians sought to stimulate a ‘moral panic’ through the media in order to accentuate the supposed threat.  A ‘moral panic’ is defined by Welch as ‘a phenomenon marked by a turbulent and exaggerated reaction to a putative threat’.

The discourse of ‘othering’ of protesters who take radical action against the war was very much to the fore in much media coverage also.  For example, Eoin Dubsky disarmed a US jet in 2002 by painting a peace sign onto the windscreen.  This action was portrayed as eccentric, and his status as a student was (over)emphasised in headline and article (Irish Times).  This plays into a more general theme of attempting to separate so-called ‘hardcore’ peace activists from the wider opposition and movement against the war, by placing these actions as those of some kind of deviant subculture, as opposed to normal people motivated to action by the wrongs they see.  This approach is replicated throughout that newspaper’s coverage of the anti-war protests, and indeed that of other newspapers – anyone who takes radical action is different, freakish, ‘other’.  This has been further emphasised by what has been called the ‘pathologising of conflict’:

“The dominant political discourse developed around the notion of ‘a communications society’ aims at eliminating all traces of social conflict in favour of negotiation and dialogue (Neveu 1994).  In this world, conflict is increasingly perceived as pathology, and the rules of ‘good demonstrating’ increasingly exclude the legitimacy of recourse to violence, or even civil disobedience.  Radical protest is more and more considered as not only illegitimate, but even unpolitical” (della Porta and Reiter 1998).

This feeds into the separation between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ protesters mentioned earlier and clearly feeds into the attempt to intimidate new protesters, and thereby seek to frighten them out of involvement (Klein 2002) in an attempt to isolate more radical protesters.

As well as using propaganda tools in an attempt to discredit the anti-war movement, the government also took more physical steps.   The most obvious of these was the decision to send in the Irish army, but further action was also taken.  Filleule and Jobard emphasise that it is important to take political involvement into consideration when examining how decisions on policing approach are taken.  Further to this, della Porta argues that political inputs vary depending on the political orientation of the parties in power, and that the Left-Right divide is arguably strongest in relation to policing.  That is, the Left would generally take a civil rights approach, while the Right would take a law-and-order one. 

It is arguably significant that after the May 2002 general election, Michael McDowell of the Progressive Democrats was appointed Minister for Justice.  McDowell was viewed as one of the most law-and-order oriented members of that cabinet, and indeed of that Dáil.  It is contended that it is highly unlikely that possibly the largest mobilisations of state forces against non-republican protest (up to that point) took place without his approval or involvement.  The contrast between the policing of this protest and that of the chaotic ‘police riot’ at the 2002 Reclaim The Streets (RTS) celebrations, when the crowd were attacked unprovoked by the gardaí, is striking.  The latter brought widespread condemnation upon the police; while the former saw a clear ‘softening up’ process on the media, through demonization of the protest and those involved in it.

Lessons had clearly been learned.  Della Porta further explains that established political actors are generally initially closed to new demands, explaining the virulence of the reaction against the protests.  This is taken a step further by Cox, who finds (in relation to the ‘movement of movements’, but equally relevant here) that:

“If neo-liberalism has undermined the State’s ability to secure consent, its turn to coercive solutions has further distanced itself from many citizens... The movement of movements ... is made possible by the decreasing ability to secure consent.  The Irish state has accordingly resorted to force in its response to the movement, thus further weakening its legitimacy for many people.”

The significance of the fact that this was a new type of movement will be further explored below.
But it is important not to over-emphasise the influence of these external actors, and thereby fall into the conclusion that the gardaí are simply a malleable tool in the hands of government.  On the contrary, they play a huge active role in the policing of anti-war protests in this time period.  In general, the policing of protest has been a key feature for the development and self-definition of the police, and this also follows for its current self-image in modern democratic societies (Winter 1998).  The imperative of control in any given situation is, of course, a very important influence on the gardaí.  Further to this, the image developed of certain ‘types of people’ (and protesters), and different situations by the police has a huge bearing on their approach to any given situation. 

Much research on social movements has shown a tendency towards a harsher approach against groups who are seen as threatening the status quo and its elites, as being ideologically focussed or having radical aims (della Porta and Filleule 1998; Earl 2007; Davenport 2000, 1995).  Each of these descriptions are applicable to the anti-war movement in this country, and that movement’s heterogeneity, use of direct action and assumed ‘anti-politics’, all match up with police assumptions of what is seen as ‘high threat’ (della Porta).  The internal characteristics of the police, such as their organisational competencies, the degree to which they are militarised, and how professional they are have all been seen as important in determining police responses.   This is clearly seen in the case examined here, as initial clear inadequacies were identified and action was taken, particularly in drafting in the riot squad and the army in an effort to address this.

The anti-war movement in Ireland grew massively very quickly in 2002 and 2003, and had some notable successes as well as some failures.  It carved a niche in the public sphere and was for some time the biggest news and discussion item in the country, much of the credit for which must go to the work of the movement.  All throughout the demonstrations at Shannon and elsewhere, policing was a foreground issue, and played a very important role in how events transpired.  Seeking to understand that hopefully enables that movement, and others, to organise better next time.  Future research could be helpful in historically situating these events more specifically in Ireland’s history of protest, and also possibly looking at psychological tactics used by the authorities, their impact, and the wider issue of effects that movement had on people involved.

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Principal Sources
Cox, Laurence, ‘News from nowhere: The movement of movements in Ireland’ http://eprints.nuim.ie/457/1/Social_movements_and_Ireland_book.pdf
Crudden, Éamonn ‘Route Irish’ (documentary), http://vimeo.com/8594795
Della Porta, Donatella, ‘Police Knowledge and Protest Policing: Some reflections on the Italian case’ http://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=NMcGg_VCHlkC&oi=fnd&pg=PA228&...
Della Porta, Donatella and Filleule, Olivier ‘Policing social protest’ http://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=6ACcrTbUuEUC&oi=fnd&pg=PA217&...
Flood, Andrew ‘Direct Action against the War in Ireland’ http://www.struggle.ws/ustour/ShannonUSlet.pdf
The Journal.ie ‘Government targeted US-Shannon flights to dampen election criticism –WikiLeaks’ http://www.thejournal.ie/the-first-irish-wikileak-the-full-contents-2010...
Welch, Michael ‘Flag burning: Moral Panic and the Criminalisation of protest’ http://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=s5btT1HO60kC&oi=fnd&pg=PR9&dq...
All other quotes are taken from the above sources